Friday, June 28, 2013

Bon Appétit: A Season One Review of NBC’s Hannibal

This review may be a bit late--the season finale of Hannibal aired last week--but I’m going to do this anyway. It’s not often when a horror TV show succeeds in being consistently creepy during an entire season, and Hannibal does so with flying, blood-spattered colors. It also breathes disturbing new life into the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, which is an impressive feat unto itself. Connections to Thomas Harris’ horror novels aside, Hannibal is what TV shows like The Following and Criminal Minds should be, and what earlier shows such as Millennium and Profiler could have been.

Instead of treating serial killers as monster-of-the-week antagonists who are quickly foiled at the end of each episode, Hannibal uses its main characters--namely Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy)--to explore serial murder and the nature of identity and insanity on a more complex and nuanced level. In doing so, the series depicts Lecter in a manner similar to Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) in Dexter and Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar) in Profit. These are depictions of murderous protagonists who go about their lives across days, weeks and months, allowing audiences to observe how such insanity can remain undetected (or at least unproven, from a legal perspective) by the killers’ peers in what would otherwise appear to be mundane settings and situations. There are no quick resolutions or sudden revelations in Hannibal; each murder and subsequent investigation leads to more murders and investigations, with the characters unaware of the central evil that ties it all together. It’s unnerving stuff.

As the series’ creator, executive producer and occasional script writer, Bryan Fuller has done an amazing job at bringing Harris’ stories to life on the small screen. Even though the 1991 film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs popularized Hannibal Lecter among a wide audience, I think that Fuller’s Hannibal, which is mostly based on characters and situations from the 1981 novel Red Dragon, is the most intriguing and disturbing adaptation of Harris’ work. Not only do the scripts create a vivid, multi-layered world of characters, but the show’s direction maintains a grim, foreboding mood across the entire season, so much so that it almost feels like an ongoing miniseries instead of a sequence of individually produced episodes.

For as strong as the cast of Hannibal is, the series would have fallen apart without its two leads, Mikkelsen and Dancy. Mikkelsen’s interpretation of Lecter is a chilling one, without an ounce of camp that came to be associated with the character in his silver screen outings. Mikkelsen combines an outward appearance of resolute sanity and cultural sophistication with an aura of icy aloofness, making this version of Lecter impossible to completely understand and predict. Dancy provides the dramatic counterpoint to Mikkelsen’s Lecter, infusing the character of Will Graham with a burgeoning emotional imbalance that’s the side effect of his ability to “see” murders through the eyes of the serial killers who commit them. The cat-and-mouse game between Graham and Lecter is largely subliminal for most of the season, and Mikkelsen and Dancy’s performances keep it moving along with the right amounts of tension and symmetry until the season’s intense finale.

For as gruesome as it can be (a totem pole made from human body parts, murder victims transformed into musical instruments, etc.), I’m still surprised that Hannibal is on NBC and not on Showtime or some other cable channel. Regardless, I’m glad this show is on at all and will be coming back for a second season next year. This is what horror television should be, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Who's up for a game of Jenga?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Richard Matheson, 1926 - 2013

As giants in the horror and sci-fi genres go, Richard Matheson is a unique case. He's not a familiar name for most media audiences, yet his influence is so pervasive that it's impossible to imagine modern horror and sci-fi pop culture without him.

In the early years of my geekhood, I familiarized myself with both classic and contemporary horror and sci-fi movies and TV shows but Matheson's name never stood out in any obvious way. Unlike horror/sci-fi celebrities such as Stephen King and Steven Spielberg--both of whom have been heavily influenced by Matheson--I rarely saw Matheson's name used to promote his work. It wasn't until I noticed the appearance of his name in the credits of many movies and TV shows that I was able to understand who he was.

Even though he is a well-respected novelist and short story author in his own right, Matheson frequently contributed his talents to film and TV production. He would either adapt his written work into scripts (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Legend of Hell House), adapt the work of others into scripts (Burn, Witch, Burn, The Devil Rides Out), or create completely original scripts (The Comedy of Terrors, Kolchak: The Night Stalker). Outside of his direct contributions to Hollywood, many of his other stories and novels were adapted by others into movies and for episodes of TV shows such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery. Chances are that if you're a fan of any horror/sci-fi movie franchise or TV series within the last 60 years, Matheson probably had something to do with it.

Although he recently passed away, it's still Richard Matheson's world. We horror and sci-fi fans are just living in it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Want to Add a Slender Man Doll to Your Horror Collection? Nevermore Toys and Kickstarter Can Help!

Early this year, I published a post about toy designer Richard T. Broadwater’s Kickstarter campaign to launch Legendary Monsters, a series of highly-detailed action figures that are based on cryptozoological legends such as the Mothman and the Chupacabra. Since then, Broadwater and his company Nevermore Toys have expanded their selection of fantastical frights to include a legend from the modern digital age: the Slender Man.

While Nevermore Toys’ Slender Man doll is not officially part of the Legendary Monsters series, it makes for a great complementary piece to the Legendary Monsters figures. According to various online sources, the Slender Man is actually a creation of a “paranormal pictures” Photoshop contest back in 2009, but the Slender Man has gone on to have a life of his own. Like the creatures in the Legendary Monsters series, the Slender Man legend has yielded plenty of blurry pictures and bone-chilling tales since his first appearance four years ago--so much as that an entire Wikia site has been created to catalog his ever-expanding lore.

Nevermore’s Slender Man is a 32" plush doll that is being created with the finest fabrics and materials to provide a soft yet durable toy. Click here to go to the official Slender Man Kickstarter page for more information about the figure and what you can do to support its production and release. Nevermore is also distributing a limited number of Slender Man illustrations, which are being made available either with the doll or individually. Each print is limited to 30 and will be signed and numbered by the artist.

Nevermore’s previous experience with Kickstarter succeeded in launching the first series of Legendary Monsters figures. Since the initial campaign, Legendary Monsters has been slightly modified to include a role-playing game component. (After all, what’s the point of collecting so many horrific beasts if you can’t make them fight each other?) With any luck, the Slender Man doll campaign will be equally as successful.

Series one of Nevermore Toys' Legendary Monsters series.
Note the retro Aurora monster model kit packaging style.

Monday, June 17, 2013

30 Years Later, Jaws 3D Swims Back to the Movie Theater

My source of disposable income has been tight as of late, so I've fallen behind on this summer's recent blockbuster releases such as Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel. However, my financial problems haven't kept me from squeezing out enough cash to see a limited release of a film that I missed seeing in the theater during its original release in 1983: Jaws 3D.

As I wrote in a previous post about Jaws 3D, "I have a soft spot for the third entry in the Jaws franchise because it was THE film that got me interested in 3D movies. ... Before Jaws 3D, I had a ViewMaster toy and a few sets of reels, and I also knew about previous horror and sci-fi movies from the 50s that were shot in 3D--movies such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, House of Wax and It Came from Outer Space--courtesy of the Crestwood House books and their ilk. But Jaws 3D solidified in my mind just what the illusion of three dimensions meant in terms of movies (as well as comic books and later video games), thus starting my lifetime affair with 3D entertainment. Furthermore, Jaws 3D was the only one of the 3D movies from the early 80s that caught my eye, since it was the only film to offer the chance of seeing one of my favorite movie monsters jump out of the silver screen and into the audience."

The rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia aside, I believe that if you can't see Jaws 3D in a 3D format then it's not worth seeing, because most of the film's effects vanish in a 2D format. In the era before digital filmmaking, studios didn't have the option of converting a film to 3D in post-production. A film had to be shot in 3D for it to be released in 3D, and 3D cinematography required additional planning, funding and technical expertise as part of the production process. When seeing an older 3D movie in 2D, you're missing half of the movie; hence, I've spent the last few years trying to find a DVD copy of Jaws 3D in 3D to see what I was missing in the third Jaws movie.

So far, I've picked up two low definition copies of the Japanese laserdisc release from the 80s, with one copy in anaglyph 3D and one in field sequential 3D. Yet because I never saw the film during its original theatrical run, I had no standard by which I could evaluate these copies to determine how accurately they imitated the original theatrical 3D experience. Thankfully, the nearest Alamo Drafthouse Cinema solved my problem when it announced that it was going to hold a one-night showing of Jaws 3D in 3D last weekend as part of its "Summer of '83" series. Read on for more details about my retro-Jaws experience at Alamo, and what it might mean in regards to future Blu-ray releases of the Jaws sequels.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Yes, This Almost Happened: The Car Game--for Kids!

When looking back at the history of the American toy industry, it’s amazing to consider some of the toys that the industry thought would be “appropriate” for kids. Take Kenner, for example: After making boatloads of cash from Star Wars toys, it hastily picked up the toy license for Alien simply because it was a high-profile space movie without giving a second thought about how horrifying the film actually was. Along those lines, Kenner did something else based on movie popularity, with likewise questionable results. It created a game for kids based on the 1977 horror movie, The Car, about a possessed, driverless car that loves to run over people. I had no idea that this game was even an idea in someone’s head, let alone something that Kenner thought about releasing to toy stores, until I found a post about it on the Plaid Stallions site.

With Kenner's The Car game, kids can get run down by
a demonic vehicle in the privacy of their own homes.
(Photo courtesy of Plaid Stallions.)

From licensing and design perspectives, The Car game sort of makes sense. Ideal released a similarly-themed game based on Jaws that proved to be quite popular, so someone at Kenner probably thought that a game based on a Jaws rip-off would be almost or just as popular. Furthermore, toy cars and motorcycles that could be propelled from a launcher base had been reliable sellers during the 70s and 80s, so I could see Kenner utilizing such a design as part of a game, possibly based on a preexisting launcher design that could be modified and relabeled for the game at minimal cost. Nevertheless, just reading the description of the game in the picture above makes it pretty clear that the players who lose the game are killed by the monster car, thus making the winning player the survivor. Candyland this isn’t.

I’m not sure why Kenner never actually produced the game, although I suspect that it was scrapped after The Car failed to live up to expectations at the box office. It should be noted that the movie went on to become a cult classic and that ERTL released a die-cast replica of the titular vehicle back in 2003. Those replicas now go for a few hundred dollars on the collectors' market.

ERTL's replica of The Car.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Five Favorite Open World Environments in Video Games

Video games have come a long, long way from when they first appeared for the general public back in the 70s. Not only have they become more complex in terms of graphics and game play, but they also transitioned from a 2D to 3D format with varying degrees of depth. I enjoy many of the classic 2D games from the 80s and games from the 90s onward that have 3D graphics, but I'm particularly fascinated with games that provide open worlds (a.k.a. "sandboxes") that allow players to explore large and unique locations as part of and/or in between game missions. Even if a game is mediocre or doesn't hold my interest, I'm content to be a virtual tourist if it provides me with an engrossing open environment to visit.

Here's a list of five open worlds that kept me entertained for hours with their expansive scope, unique features, and varied opportunities for interaction. These aren't the immersive virtual realities that the sci-fi genre keeps promising us, but they're great examples of what digital entertainment can provide to gamers when game developers are given the support to create incredible worlds of their own. Read on for my list of noteworthy virtual environments.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Universal Studios Jaws Ride Lives on at the Amity Boat Tours Site

Fans of Jaws and its subsequent franchise were crushed when the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida decided to close its Jaws ride back in January 2012. Yet while this piece of Jaws history is gone, it is far from forgotten. The folks behind the Amity Boat Tours Web site, a site that has been around for 13 years, are updating the site into the "Finale Edition" that will serve as an archive for all things concerning the Jaws ride.

According to the site, "(T)he Finale Edition of celebrates the life, and community of the JAWS World -- from the honorary JAWS Skippers to the Summer vacationers of Amity, this site was built and designed for you. We have received many questions and concerns that the site will close, and grow old, now that the attraction is gone. Quite the contrary has occurred. We have been working, since weeks before the announcement of its closure, to begin crafting a brand-new way to bring Amity Harbor to you and something that we can walk away from proud and dedicated to. The Finale Edition of the site is just that... we are extremely proud to bring this new experience to you, as well as 'bulk-up' the world."

A bird's-eye view of the Orlando Jaws ride. You can see the most of the places 
where the shark surfaces to terrorize theme park visitors.

I've been looking around the updated site and it appears to be on track (no pun intended) to becoming the definitive resource for anyone who is interested in the Jaws ride and its history. The Finale Edition site features a detailed history of the ride, plenty of trivia and photos, and video clips of the fictitious Amity TV station WJWS that would play on monitors in the ride pavilion to keep visitors entertained while they waited in line. The site also features photos of a similar Jaws ride that still operates in the Universal Studios theme park in Japan.

In honor of the revamped Amity Boat Tours site, I'm posting two Jaws ride video clips that I found on YouTube that are different from most others that are available on the Internet. The first is a video of the ride in anaglyph 3D (think of it as the other "Jaws 3D") and a video from 1990 that will give you an idea of how the ride functioned as it was originally designed Ride and Show Engineering, Inc. In this version, the shark would attack the tour boat and spin it to the side, shortly before the final confrontation between the shark and the boat's "Skipper". As you can see in the video, the shark that was supposed to attack the boat wasn't very convincing; however, the shark that surfaces in the boathouse (at about three minutes into the video) is very impressive with its thrashing head and snapping mouth. The ride was redesigned and re-launched in 1993 due to repeated technical problems, but it's a shame that Universal didn't keep the original boathouse shark.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

BBC's Orphan Black Sends in the Clones

Thank goodness for modern cable TV, because I wouldn't know what to do without BBC. First, it broadcast the amazing three-part zombie miniseries In the Flesh, and last weekend it finished its run of the first ten episode season of Orphan Black. A title like Orphan Black sounds like some kind of anime or manga series (you know, something like Perfect Blue or Death Note), but it's not. It's a sci-fi TV show about a covert experiment in cloning, as told from the clones' perspective.

Orphan Black opens in Toronto with a young woman named Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) who is trying to escape her poor, drug-fueled life and regain custody of her daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler). Sarah was adopted when she was an infant, and her only close friend is her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris). One day, Sarah is waiting at a metro station when a woman who looks exactly like commits suicide by throwing herself in front of an oncoming train. Seizing the opportunity, Sarah decides to assume the identity of the woman, whose name is Beth, as part of a plan to fake her own death and run off with Kira. However, her plan becomes much more complicated when she learns that Beth is not some random look-alike but an actual clone of Sarah--one of a total of nine clones who are dying one by one at the hands of an unknown assassin.

Created by John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, Orphan Black takes the well-worn sci-fi trope of cloning to produce a crackerjack story populated by unexpected plot twists and a large cast of engaging characters. The series begins with a clever hook--a woman who plans to commit identity theft winds up discovering that her own identity was stolen before she was born--and it keeps building on itself in each successive episode until the intense season cliffhanger. It also asks a few provocative questions about the morality of genetic engineering and body modification, and it examines the dangerous intersections of scientific research with absolutist ideology and short-sighted, egocentric pundits who are heralded as "visionaries".

In comparison to other TV series, Orphan Black often reminded me of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse in that it has a main actress who is tasked with playing multiple roles, as well as its depiction of people who appear to be ordinary on the surface but are in fact being ruthlessly exploited by a sinister, clandestine technology. It also made me think of all the sci-fi shows that have used clones as a minor story arc or single episode plot (shows like Star Trek and The X-Files) without exploring the full range of narrative possibilities that clones and cloning can provide.

Of course, simply populating a sci-fi TV show with clones isn't enough to make it good. Orphan Black would have been a much lesser story if the writers did not develop the clones as individual characters or it cast an actress of limited range to portray all of them. Thankfully, the scripts give each of the clones a distinct personality and Maslany brings each of them to life through nuanced performances and seamless composite shots. The scenes where Maslany has to play against herself--or against herself and herself--are very convincing and add so much to the show's drama and suspense. Each clone reacts differently to what is happening, and the show follows each reaction to its logical and unique conclusion.

If you love intrigue, surprises and dark humor in your sci-fi, Orphan Black is a show for you. I don't know how much longer it can keep up its current level of quality, but I'm definitely going to turn in for the second season to find out. Click here to visit the official BBC Orphan Black page.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Look at Kotobukiya's ED-209 and RoboCop MK-2 Figures

When it comes to figures and miniatures for the RoboCop franchise, plenty of figures, busts and model kits have been made of the titular RoboCop character. However, recreations of other robots from the franchise, such as the ED-209 and RoboCop MK-2 (a.k.a. RoboCain), have been much harder to come by and very expensive to purchase. Things are slowly turning around in terms of availability: NECA will be releasing an ED-209 replica this summer, while Hot Toys will be releasing an ED-209 replica in early 2014 to go with its new deluxe RoboCop figure. Yet with both versions of ED-209 costing a sizable chunk of cash--NECA is charging $50 and Hot Toys is charging $410--these new collectables may still be out of reach for many RoboCop fans.

Thankfully, I was able to add ED-209 and RoboCop MK-2 to my personal collection a few years ago for around $10 each, courtesy of the Japanese model and toy company Kotobukiya. Kotobukiya did a series of 3.5-inch figures based on robots from the original RoboCop trilogy. Each figure was pre-painted and only required minimal, snap-together assembly. Read on to learn more about these two fun and affordable RoboCop collectibles.